Thorium: War and peace in the Atomic Age

‘Atomic’ is an ominous phrase and has precluded a paranoid age. North Korean nuclear weaponry is threated to point America’s way. Iran’s ‘peaceful’ production is hinged under an unstable theocracy. The events of Chernobyl and Fukushima still fresh in the mind of many.

Nuclear power was promised, packaged and sold to us as energy for peace and for security. Providing sufficient electricity or as an acting doomsday device, a deterrent of war. However, nuclear weaponry has been sold on the Bulgarian black market, atomic waste contracts targeted by terror groups and the treat of meltdown imminent in over-commissioned nuclear stations.

The vaporization of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the work of the Manhattan Project led to our current state of affairs. War, a paradox of awesome destruction inspiring great ingenuity, a seldom occasion were all minds and efforts enter a common consensus. The allied effort free of relative financial straits and the dedication of their greatest minds, discovered, experimented and developed a new source of energy for the future. Erratic in nature, enriched uranium was heavily endorsed by the military for its destructive ability over other potential elements. After the war and a $24 billion (modern day equivalent) investment, uranium was well established and all other experiments commercially ignored or capitalistically over looked. Our new age energy opportunity had entered human history at an unfortunate time.

Of the potential metals, one quite fitting of the time, named after Norse god war, thorium saw a resurrection of research during the 1950’s. Alvin Weinberg, a leading nuclear physicist and member of the Manhattan project, perused the element as a liquid fuel, a competitor to the light water reaction. However under the Nixon administration, the establishment of light water reaction and the enormous costs of research, irrelevant of other systems, uranium was selected and a 1950s technology has persevered to the present.

Thorium’s potential has not been lost to American negligence; resurgence in interest has developed in China. “Minimal risk of meltdown” and “walkaway safe”, it’s high reactive abundance, stability and capability of power production, 90 times greater than that of uranium, has made it an attractive metal to the orient. Thorium produces a fraction of the waste and is only dangerous for 200 years, in contrast to plutonium’s 10,000 year toxicity. Weapon grade waste is difficult retrieve and manipulate, thorium’s attributes are often described as ‘too good to be true’.

Concurrently, a conflict still persists and human ingenuity may be focused once again. The cold war, a display of American-Soviet military might, has been surpassed by the technological age. The rises of the Asia giants are crippling current energy resources. The Soviet’s sputnik pushed America to the moon. China’s energy expedition may push us further.

Henry Beach

Image: bionerd on Flickr

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